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The Year UnPacked: 40 to 31

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Credit: Ben Birchall - WPA Pool / Getty

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Credit: Ben Birchall - WPA Pool / Getty

December 25, 2018   6 mins

UnHerd is a place to look at the world without the headlines getting in the way. But we don’t claim to be the only such vantage point. Beyond the froth of the 24 hour news cycle – and the 24 second social media cycle – you can find a wealth of writing that doesn’t follow the herd. The aim of my daily UnPacked column is to feature, and comment on, the best of what’s out there.

I’ve counted down the top 50 UnPacked highlights from 2018 – the facts, figures, ideas and events that may not have made the headlines, but which provide a more reliable insight into the forces shaping the future.

Today, numbers 40 to 31:



America’s Amish future

“Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms” – that was the motto of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and arguably we’ve been conforming ever since.

But not the Amish. What they do is get together as communities and decide whether particular technologies suit their chosen way of life or not. According to Michael J Coren’s interview with Jameson Wetmore for Quartz, different Amish communities come to different conclusions – but there is a common thread:

“It’s interesting that the Amish have different districts, and each district has different rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Yet it’s very clear there are two technologies that, as soon as the community accepts them, they are no longer Amish. Those technologies are the television and the automobile.”

By the way, the Amish are thriving. Their numbers double every generation and of the 500 or so Amish settlements, about half were founded in the 21st century.


The Amish: America's most sophisticated users of technology




The Internet of Bodies

I’d imagine the Amish would take a dim view of the notion that people should be microchipped like dogs. In a story for the Guardian, Julia Kollewe reports that microchipping is on the brink of going mainstream:

‘The tiny chips, implanted in the flesh between the thumb and forefinger, are similar to those for pets. They enable people to open their front door, access their office or start their car with a wave of their hand, and can also store medical data.”

Kollewe adds that one microchipping provider “is in discussions with several British legal and financial firms about fitting their employees with microchips.”

With these implants we wouldn’t have to bother with security passes and passwords anymore. In theory, we’d be automatically, perhaps permanently, interfaced with the corresponding digital networks – creating a so-called Internet of Bodies.

It would be quick, convenient and deeply, deeply sinister.


Prepare to be microchipped




Your local branch of the Chinese Communist Party

Did you know that the Communist Party is setting up branches in the West? I didn’t until I happened across Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian’s report for Foreign Policy:

“Party cells have appeared in California, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, North Dakota, and West Virginia. The cells appear to be part of a strategy, now expanded under Chinese President Xi Jinping, to extend direct party control globally and to insulate students and scholars abroad from the influence of ‘harmful ideology’, sometimes by asking members to report on each other’s behaviors and beliefs.”

And it’s not just America where the CPC is organising. Other countries mentioned by Allen-Ebrahimian include France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

These cells appear to be for Chinese ex-pats only. But perhaps they should be open to the local population too and even put up candidates in elections. The CPC doesn’t have much experience with democracy I know, but a platform combining rapid economic growth with a strict approach to law-and-order would definitely find support.


Could the Chinese Communist Party win votes in the West?

Global Affairs



The big problem with tall buildings

With sky-high property prices in global city centres, developers can only make a profit by building sky-high. But as Travis Barrington argues in a piece for Propmodo ageing skyscrapers can be very expensive to maintain, while being impossible to upgrade:

“Built in an era of cheap energy, many post-war Manhattan towers have facades of single-glazed glass, and structures that can’t support the weight of additional insulating glass. Many have low ceilings, tight column spacing, and inefficient heating and cooling systems. Often these have become even more cramped by having to accommodate the infrastructure of modern information technology.”

We could tear them down and start again, but that isn’t easy either. The tallest building ever (peacefully) demolished was the 41 storey Singer Building in 1968. With towers going up that are twice as tall or more, we’re bequeathing yet another head-scratching problem to posterity.


The false promise of the vertical city




The eugenicist at the royal wedding

The wedding of the year was, of course, that of Harry and Meghan. For many people, Bishop Michael Curry’s passionate sermon was a particular highlight. However, it did feature a quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – the philosopher and Jesuit priest whose unorthodox ideas made him a favourite with liberal Christians and those in the ever-expanding ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ category.

What they might find rather more disturbing, however, is the evidence presented in a jaw-dropping article by John P Slattery for Religion Dispatches. Quote after quote shows that Teilhard was a racist who believed that some ethnic groups are more advanced than others.

Furthermore, he was a raving eugenicist who argued that what he called the “advancing wing of humanity” should use scientific methods to further its biological evolution.

Teilhard rejected the idea that we’re all inherently imperfect (i.e. the doctrine of Original Sin) in favour of that old lie: that at least some of us can perfect ourselves.


A disturbing post-script to the royal wedding




The infinite screen

In 2018, we found out that smartphone sales for 2017 were down on 2016 – the first year-on-year decline. Is this the beginning of the end of the smartphone and, if so, what might replace it as the core technology of the digital age?

Benedict Evans makes a strong case for AR (augmented reality) – a wearable device that allows you to see what you want to see – not as a distracting image hovering in your face, but as an apparently real object at an appropriate depth and location within your field of vision:

“Your glasses can show you the things that you might look at on a smartphone or a 2000 inch screen, but they can also unbundle that screen into the real world, and change it.”

Evans calls this the “infinite screen” and it would replace all the finite screens that we currently use.

He compares the development of AR to that of the multitouch smartphone, and suggests that the stage at which AR is now is equivalent to where multitouch was in the run-up to the 2007 launch of its breakthrough commercial product – the Apple iPhone.

We’ll see.


The next tech revolution – you won't believe your eyes!




Pub culture versus cafe culture

According to John Harris in the Guardian, British pubs are closing down at a rate of 18 every week.

But for every pub that closes down, a coffee shop seems to open. But for Harris these are no substitute for the loss true community institutions:

“If our era has a pre-eminent gathering space, in both its chain and independent forms, it is surely the modern cafe – where most people seem to be hunched over their laptops, transfixed by their phones, or huddled with friends and oblivious to everyone else. This is the opposite of the places where the best kind of chaotic, unexpected experiences can happen and you might end up falling into conversations with complete strangers.”

Pubs and churches may seem poles apart in purpose and atmosphere, but both are shared spaces that aim to appeal across the community. They have much more in common with each other than what Harris sees as the 21st century culture of “ever smaller social niches.”


Our 'open' society has shut the door on shared spaces

Flyover Country



The end of reading

In an article for The Conversation, Jean Twenge has bad news for booksellers:

“…In 1980, 60 percent of 12th graders said they read a book, newspaper or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned for school… By 2016, only 16 percent did.”

One doesn’t have to look far too find the culprit:

“By 2016, the average 12th grader said they spent a staggering six hours a day texting, on social media, and online during their free time. And that’s just three activities; if other digital media activities were included, that estimate would surely rise.”

When you hear that ‘young people these days’ are doing less of X, Y or Z it’s because they don’t have the time.


Why it's time to panic about kids and smartphones




The great scientific slowdown 

How many discoveries made since 1990 have been honoured with a Nobel Prize in Physics? The answer, according to Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen in a fascinating essay for the Atlantic, is just three.

It’s not like we’re starving science of funding. Quite the opposite, in fact – there’s been a ramp-up in resources since the 1960s. Even if scientific progress isn’t slowing down, it’s not keeping up with what we’re investing in it:

“When Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom in 1911, he published it in a paper with just a single author: himself. By contrast, the two 2012 papers announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle had roughly a thousand authors each. On average, research teams nearly quadrupled in size over the 20th century, and that increase continues today.”

Even if science isn’t slowing down, it is having a productivity crisis. The big question is whether that’s because we’ve discovered all the easy stuff or whether we’re looking in the wrong places.


Why we need to concentrate on science




How to build more houses in global cities

Why don’t global cities build more homes? Clearly there’s the demand, otherwise they wouldn’t be so expensive.

Is it just too difficult? No, Because as James Gleeson explains on his blog, there’s one global city that’s getting on with it:

“Tokyo’s housing stock is growing very fast – roughly 2% a year, about twice as fast as that of Paris, London or New York…”

What’s more they’re not doing it through sprawl or by packing ever more people into each dwelling. Indeed, Tokyo is getting denser in terms of dwellings per hectare, while providing more living space per person.

The secret of their success is demolition: It’s much easier in Japan to knock-down old development and start again. That doesn’t mean that London and New York have to bulldoze their most beautiful neighbourhoods. There’s plenty of post-war rubbish to get started on first.

Now read The Year UnPacked 30-21

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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